Bishopsgate Goods Depot Fire
At 06.20 on the morning of Saturday 5th December 1964 the London Fire Brigade received the first of many calls to a fire at Bishopsgate Goods Depot, in Shoreditch High Street, London E1.
This huge railway good depot which was built in 1880 then extended in 1914, and had a frontage of 300 ft. and went back to a depth of 600 ft. It was constructed of load bearing external walls. The floors where supported by internal unprotected cast iron columns at first and second floors, and by brick arch construction at ground floor level. Some of these arches that faced onto the street outside were let out for use as shops. The building was used to store a wide variety of commodities transported by British Rail. Many parts of the building contained Customs Cages where good were stored awaiting customs clearance.
Rail lines ran into the depot at first floor level to allow loading and unloading from railway goods wagons. Roadways also ran throughout the site allowing for to in order for motor lorries to transfer goods. Over 300 railway wagons and 60 motor vehicles were on the site when the fire started.
On receiving the first call by exchange telephone at a Pump Escape and Pump from Shoreditch, along with a Pump and Turntable Ladder from Whitechapel were ordered.
At 06.24 a second call was received again by exchange telephone to “Fire in the vicinity of the Goods Depot, Bishopsgate” followed by further calls at 06.25, 06.34, 06.39, 06.47, 06.48 and 06.58.
On receipt of the second call, the Pump Escape from Whitechapel was also ordered.
When the first appliance from Shoreditch arrived at the entrance to the depot in Shoreditch High Street, the OIC was greeted by the sight of smoke issuing from the widows at first and second floor levels. On turning into the road into the depot he could also see smoke issuing from all the first floor windows, and to a lesser extent, smoke also coming from all the second floor windows. The appliances pulled up outside a covered loading bank, and the Station Officer entered No. 5 loading bank. He made his way into the smoke filled building in a parallel direction to Bethnal Green Road and when around 25 yards in he saw a large area of fire in front of him and to his left. The fire appeared to extend right through to the Shoreditch High Street end. He could not see the side of the premises to Quaker Street due to thick dense black smoke.
He returned to his appliance where he immediately gave instructions to “Make Pumps 10”
Control received this message only 5 minutes after the original call whilst receiving the many other reports of fire. The Station Officer then ordered two braches to be got to work into the building by No. 5 bank and near to the loading platform. These jets were to be got to work from an internal hydrant situated on No. 5 bank. Having ensured these instructions were being followed he made his way to the gate where the appliances had entered and was met by a Security Officer who told him lighted embers were falling onto the ground floor from the first floor via an open lift shaft. Crews arriving dealt with these falling brands by the use of a branch that was got to work from the first floor.
Meanwhile at 06.24 Whitechapels Pump had arrived and drove up Wheler Street Hill into the Shoreditch High Street entrance at the first floor level where the railway lines were situated. The Officer in Charge of this appliance saw that the fire had spread throughout the building and that beyond the front bank loading platform, the building was well alight as far as he could see. He noticed that railway staff were fighting the fire from an internal hydrant using BR equipment in front of the offices.
At 06.30 the Pump Escape from Cannon Street arrived, and the officer in charge of this appliance gave orders for his pump to supply water to Whitechapels Pump. By now the whole of the building including the roof appeared to be ablaze. Drums of liquid within the building stared to burst. And the walls on the Commercial Street side of the building had started to crack. The combined efforts of crews from Whitechapel and Cannon Street enabled three branches to be got to work on the fire from the front loading bank.
The Officer in Charge of the first attendance had now returned to his own crews who had by this time got a branch to work and were laying a second, when a loud explosion on the second floor was heard. This was followed by a number of smaller explosions, also on the second floor.
The Station Officer now sent “Make Pumps 20”
Following these explosions the fire rapidly spread along the lines of railway goods wagons within the depot and onto the loading platforms on the first floor, and onto the warehouse on the floor above. The spread of fire was so rapid that the order to break couplings and move the two appliances was given to stop the appliances becoming involved in the fire. The appliance were moved, but not before the paint on them had become severely blistered. This didn’t affect the efficiency of the appliances and they continued to take part in the efforts to fight the fire. While the appliances were being moved the fire broke through the roof and a message was then sent “Make Turntable Ladders 3”
At 06.30 D.O. Lapthorne and A.D.O. Lloyd arrived at the fire. The D.O. went to the Wheler Street side and the A.D.O. to the Bethnal Green Road side of the building. The A.D.O. observed fire along around 300 ft. of windows on both first and second floor levels on the Bethnal Green Road side, so then went to the Shoreditch High Street side at first floor level where he found around 4/5ths of the first and second floors a mass of flames which was spreading quickly towards the loading bank.
At 06.36, D.O. Lloyd sent an informative message showing the building was well alight, followed at 06.33 for “A further 10 Pumps and 2 more Turntable Ladders” Both the A.D.O. and D.O. realised that conditions were becoming too dangerous for firefighters to remain in the building so gave the order for all crews to be withdrawn. The first major collapse of walls occurred moments later at 06.45 when a wall collapsed onto the Bethnal Green Road. Fortunately no crew or appliances were deployed where this collapse took place. Immediate actions were then taken to remove other appliances to a safe area. No sooner had this been accomplished that another collapse took place, this time where the appliances had been previously positioned. This second collapse caused a partial obstruction in Bethnal Green Road. It was now apparent that all firefighting would now have to be carried out from the perimeter of the site.
The message was now sent to “Make Pumps 40, with 10 Turntable Ladders” “10 Radial Branches” were also ordered. Jets were used to protect a 2,000 gallon petrol tank threatened during the fire and Whiskey in the bonded section added to the difficulties.
Due to strong winds, buildings in Quaker Street on the south side of the fire were threatened both by flying embers and radiated heat. A number of small fires did occur, but these were quickly dealt with, with no serious damage.
Jets were now concentrated in Wheler Street to enable the stop of fire spread to the South side of the goods depot, and to further protect property in Quaker Street. Turntable ladders were positioned at suitable vantage points, but were reinforced as soon as possible with Radial Branches
More jets were got to work from the main rail entrance at the first floor level to contain the fire in this area. These branches were slowly worked into the building with great care due to the fragile state of the building. At the height of the blaze, 21 jets and 8 Radial Branches were at work. At 07.59 the danger of further fire spread had been averted, and at 10.29 the stop was sent. Crews remained at the site cooling down and ensuring no re occurrence of fire took place.
Early in the fire the Station Officer in charge of the first attendance had questioned whether anyone was in the building. He was told that it was not known if anyone was in the building, but shortly later he was taken to a group of workers who had left and were now out of danger. Later at 07.13 a message was passed round the fire ground by radios that two Customs Officers might be in the building and were missing. The area they possibly were had collapsed and it was considered too dangerous to attempt a search, but it was noticed that a canopy hatch above the loading bay which served as an alternative escape route was open, so lent belief that they had escaped safely. Despite the instability of the area a search was later carried out and at 12.20 the bodies of the two Customs Officers were found.
It took 235 firefighters (including 17 AFS men) 22 Pumps, 19 Pump Escapes, 12 Turntable Ladders, 2 Emergency Tenders, 4 AFS Vehicles along with Control units, Wireless Cars and Staff Cars to bring this fire under control.
Apart from the loss of two lives, 300 railway wagons and 60 motor vehicles were severely damaged along with goods of all kinds that were in transit. The cost of the blaze was put at, at least five million pounds.
Message details from this incident below
0620: Call to “Fire at Bishopsgate Goods Depot”
0625: “From Stn/O Wheeler: Make Pumps 10.”
0629: “From Stn/O Wheeler: Make Pumps 20, TL’s 3.”
0628: “From Stn/O Wheeler: a building of five floors and basement, about 200’ x 200’ well alight.”
0643: “From DO Lapthorn: Make Pumps 30, TL’s 5.”
0647: “From DO Lapthorn: Make TL’s 6.”
0640: “From DCFO: Shortage of water. All rail lines to Liverpool Street Station to be closed.”
0657: “From CFO: Make Pumps 40.”
0700: “From CFO: Make TL’s 10.”
0707: “From CFO: Collect all radial branches and convey them to the fire.”
0713: Message passed round incident via fireground radios “Two Customs Officers believed still unaccounted for within the building”
0720: “From CFO: Considerable collapse of walls has taken place at North side of building. Personnel removed to safety Radial branches and TL’s at work. A number of small fires in surrounding property have been extinguished.”
0740: “From CFO: Some progress now being made to contain the fire.”
0742: “From CFO: Make Hose Layers 2.”
0759: “From CFO: Fire Surrounded.”
0820: “From Brigade Control to CFO: If more than 10 pumps are required as relief at 0900 hours, it will be necessary to get them from adjoining brigades. Please advise requirements.”
0832: “From DCFO: Numerous gas leaks. North Thames Gas Board urgently required.”
0842: From Brigade Control to DCFO: “From Information Room, Scotland Yard: Traffic is running over unprotected hose in Bethnal Green Rd.”
0845: “From DCFO: 20 pumps required as relief at 0900 from oncoming watch.”
0916: “From DCFO: Order on the Canteen Van.”
0920: “From ACFO: 100 gallons of diesel oil required.”